Researchers at the University of Calgary (UCalgary) have discovered a troubling link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the spike in alcohol-related liver disease.
“We wanted to understand the connection between increased alcohol sales and increased alcohol consumption and alcoholic induced hepatitis admissions in Alberta,” said UCalgary research associate Elizabeth Baguley.
The team analyzed data from before and during the pandemic, and what they found was startling.
In the two years before the start of the pandemic, the hospitalization rate for patients with alcoholic hepatitis (AH) was 65 per 100,000 admissions.
From April 2020 to March 2021, that rate more than doubled to 133 per 100,000 admissions. From April 2021 to March 2022, the rate was 102 per 100,000 admissions.
“In the second year of the pandemic, the rates of admission were still very high in comparison to what we were seeing before the pandemic,” Baguley explained.
“For us, that’s actually very concerning to see because of the second year of the pandemic, vaccinations were introduced and readily available and also social restrictions were lifting.”
The latest UCalgary findings come in the wake of new liquor guidelines, which were introduced in January and show a dramatic increase in health risks associated with how many drinks Canadians have per week.
The updated report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction for Health Canada says there is a moderate risk of harm for those who consume between three and six standard drinks a week, and it increases for every additional drink.
“I think the new guidelines provide people to make an informed decision about their consumption,” Baguley said.
“It kind of puts the control back in the consumers hands to say, ‘Okay, this is the risk that I’m willing to accept when it comes to my alcohol consumption’.”
Meanwhile, those who work with Albertans struggling with alcohol use disorder say, while the guidelines are a step in the right direction, there needs to be more awareness and resources.
“I know that when people go to detox and get out they’re often on long waiting lists to get into residential treatment facilities,” Recovery Calgary program director Brad Oneil said. “They can be waiting upwards of six weeks, depending on the facility they’re trying to get into.”
Oneil said that pre-pandemic, he would get approximately four inquires per week related to addiction counselling and alcohol use disorder and said that number has since tripled.
“I don’t think that we’re going to see much of a drop off,” Oneil said. “I was meeting with an associate earlier this week and we both agree we’re only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg of the effects of what COVID has left us in terms of mental health issues.”
Oneil said he’s been offering some of his programs online in order to help people who can’t access to support or treatment right away.
“As people were getting hopeful and transitioning out of COVID, then all of a sudden the economy takes a sharp turn and prices have gone up,” he said. “It all puts stress on on individuals and family systems and we have to give them more coping mechanisms.”
The UCalgary team is also working on finding solutions and has started to collaborate with physicians to talk to Albertans about the risks associated with alcohol consumption.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Shaheen, an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine who led the study, has been able to provide primary care physicians with the evidence from the first six months of the pandemic designing a pathway for primary care physicians in Calgary to talk with their patients about how much they drink.
“The beauty of it is we are not waiting in our clinics for patients,” Shaheen explained. “We are trying to reach out to patients in the community and tell them we are here to help if you need it.”